2020 ARRL June VHF

updated 2021-01-10

When you enter in a radio contest there are some times when you take it easy: times when you slow down, enjoy the ride and take time to smell the roses between contacts. This was not one of those weekends.

At the time of this event the Alaska VHF-Up Group had been working for a few years to build up contest activity. The response was steady and positive: each time we promoted an event we had more operators on the air, and more enthusiasm among them. For this event we felt that it was time to go all-in and attempt a two-day rover route. We called it correctly, and it paid off in a big way with record turnout, record contacts, and record grid count.

My antenna stack for the event was my standard pair of Yagi antennas for 2 meters and 70 centimeters. These antennas are designs I created myself in 4NEC2. They use fiberglass booms for radio-transparency, 1/4″ diameter aluminum parasitic elements for over-the-road durability, and a 3/8″ diameter copper dipole driven element.

Antennas and rotator for VHF contesting rover
Contesting antennas: laminated plywood mount, MFJ rotator, and homebrew Yagi antennas

The antennas are direct feed 50-ohm designs, so no matching networks are required. A simple choke balun made from a few turns of coax is integrated into the feed line attachment point. Each antenna covers the entirety of its respective band, so they can be used for any frequency without SWR issues or significant variation in gain.

Weak signal work (SSB, CW, digital, etc.) is usually done with horizontally-polarized antennas operating in the lower part of the band. In Alaska the 2 meter and 70 centimeter bands simply never reach Outside, as far as we know, so that convention did not hold. Repeaters on FM and weak signal work on SSB all use vertical polarization.

That adds an additional complexity when mounting antennas, requiring a cross boom to hold the antennas apart. It also requires that they be mounted a little higher above the vehicle than if they were mounted horizontally. All in all though the setup works quite well.

I keep two guy lines attached at the top of the mast (yellow strings in the image below) and I tie them off to the cargo rack when driving between grids. The guy lines are probably not necessary: I have forgotten to tie those off before and the stack withstood freeway speed. They make me feel better though.

VHF rover contesting
New VHF/UHF antennas on the rover above Anchorage

BP51 was the first grid, operating from the corner of Alpweg and Meadow roads above Anchorage. This is consistently the best operating site, so I usually like to start off here.

The next location was BP41, of which only a small bit of the grid is accessible. You can get inside this grid by driving an hour north to the town of Willow, or by heading over near Kinkaid Park and the Ted Stevens International Airport. The site I use is on teh side of the road near Point Woronzof and actually has a little bit of elevation above Anchorage. It is not much elevation, but it helps, and the RF paths to the Mat-Su (north) and Kenai Peninsula (Southwest) are good as well.

Ham radio operator contesting VHF rover
With everything set up in the back of the truck I had room to work.

Over the years I have experimented with operating from the cab, setting up outside the vehicle, and operating in the truck bed. I have found setting up in the back of the truck to be the best approach since it gives me some room to move around and keeps the cab clear while I’m driving. The disadvantage is that you cannot make contacts while in motion, but I probably should not be doing that anyway.

Ham radio rover station go-kit
This homemade structure of all-thread and aluminum sheets used to be how I kept my station together.

Since this contest I have simplified my gear immensely, but at the time I was using the setup shown above. The radios, meters, interface, and tuner are all mounted to a grid-like structure made of stainless steel all-thread rods and aluminum sheets. The entire structure is inherently grounded, keeps the gear together, and is much easier to work on that having everything in an enclosed case.

Ham radio rover station in Alaska
Set up near Indian on Turnagain Arm.

After Point Woronzof it was off to Turnagain Arm for BP50. This grid has a ton of area on land, but only a few section where you are on-road and can still reach Anchorage. One particular turnout on the Seward Highway offers a great signal path back into Anchorage, and better-equipped Kenai stations can be worked as well.

BP40 was the next stop, which I activated from a turnout on the Sterling Highway outside of Sterling. This location is marginal at best: you have some elevation, but there are higher hills that obstruct the view of Anchorage. Going a little further to get around the distant hills takes you down off the high point of the highway and into the trees. Views of the Kenai Peninsula are excellent, but there are few operators there. The Sterling Highway is really a site for 6 meter operating, but activity on that band is still low.

VHF/UHF rover camped out for the night
Parked at Stariski Campground for the night.

The stopping point for the night was Stariski Campground. This is a beautiful State campground where I have stayed a few times. The campground is situated on a high bluff overlooking Cook Inlet.

View over Cook Inlet, Alaska
View over Cook Inlet, from Stariski Campground

With the operating done for the day we moved the radio gear into the cab, inflated a mattress in the back, and passed out. Contesting is a lot of driving around, so it is not very physical. The exertion is all mental – trying to keep an eye on gear, pick out weak signals, and watch for issues.

VHF/UHF contest rover in Homer, Alaska
We set up in a pull-out on the side of Diamond Ridge Road for the last stop of the trip.

The next morning (Sunday) we got up early, ate a snack, and hit the road again. The next and final stop was Diamond Ridge Road, a high point that sits above Homer and looks back into Anchorage from BO49. This was my first time activating this grid, and I was hoping more Anchorage stations would be on the air. Unfortunately most of the Anchorage crowd was offline on Sunday, and I only managed a few contacts in that direction.

Much to my surprise though, the Homer and Anchor Point crowds came to my rescue. No sooner was I giving up on Anchorage when I started hearing weak signals. After I realized they were coming from Homer I spun the antennas around and quickly worked about ten people local to Homer and Anchor Point, on multiple bands.

There turned to to be a bunch of operators who were interested in the contest but who were blocked by the hills above Homer. Putting the rover in position on Diamond Ridge road allowed me to reach them easily, and more contacts flowed into the log.

Finding this “reservoir” of operators was a great surprise, and a fun way to end the event. With the contest over we packed up the gear, took the antennas down, and headed into Homer for some much deserved fish and chips.

Rover antennas looking towards Anchorage
Operating on Diamond Ridge Road, above Homer, with antennas pointed back towards Anchorage.